Epiphany 5 / Year A
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” In 2020 we think of salt as something abundant and to be avoided. You can purchase a 25-pound bag of Morton’s Table Salt at Amazon for $21 and pretty much be set for life. Light is available with the flick of a switch or a simple voice command to Alexa. In our day and age, you have to work hard to lower your salt intake and travel great distances to be in total darkness.
However, at the time Jesus said you are salt and light, each image conveyed something very different than it does today. Salt was a rare and precious commodity. Extensive trade routes were set up to import it and traders made fortunes for their efforts. It was even used as a currency. Roman soldiers were paid with salt, a practice from which we derive our word ‘salary’. In Jesus’ day, salt was as prized as gold.
It was primarily used to season and preserve foods and the Law of Moses required Temple meat and grain offerings to be salted. It had literally thousands of other uses from creating chemical reactions in fires to treating wounds (on which you would rub salt!). But once salt lost is properties, like oyster shells today, it was thrown into the streets and used for little more than creating a path.
Over time salt came to be associated with friendship, hospitality, and good fortune. Spilling salt accidently was thought to bring bad luck while sprinkling it on the floor of a new home was said to ward off evil spirits. There is a little-known detail in Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. If you look closely, you will notice Judas has knocked over a cellar of salt; a sign of his eminent broken bond with Jesus and sinister intention.
Houses in Jesus day were lit with oil lamps. Most often made of clay pottery, they typically had an open end in which one would pour olive oil and smaller opening at the other end to hold a wick made of flax or cotton. A typical lamp gave off about as much light as a 20-watt bulb. There were no matches at the time so the wick was lit either by rubbing sticks or striking stones to create a spark. Because olive oil was plentiful and inexpensive, most homes kept a lamp burning at all times.
When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” he does not dwell on what it is good for but moves immediately to what happens if it becomes good for nothing. The Greek word translated here as “lost its taste” or “tasteless” is moraino, which literally means “foolish”, “dull”, “flat”, or “deficient”. Jesus tells his followers, “You are the salt of the earth, but if, as a disciple, you become foolish, dull, flat, deficient, or tasteless, than you have nothing to offer to the world.”
It is tragic when a person throws away his or her life by making foolish decisions – sometimes just one act is all it takes. But more insipid and less noticeable is the process that makes a person dull or flat. If Jesus was sitting at table with John Rector enjoying one of his grilling masterpieces, he might say, “Never become a knife so dull you cannot carve meat! How then would you be useful?”
Life has a way of wearing us down and wearing us out and according to Jesus we must be on guard against losing our edge, our focus, our hope, our sense of possibility and the role we can play in nurturing it to fruition. Kierkegaard held boredom is the root of all evil. He said it is the result of the “despairing refusal to be oneself.” The cure for boredom, according to the American poet Dorothy Parker, is curiosity. Somewhere in this is wisdom about how to avoid losing your saltiness which, in Jesus’ mind, is a primary pursuit in the spiritual life.
If Jesus uses salt to illustrate what happens to a person who becomes good for nothing, than he uses the image of light as a way of exhorting his followers to be good for something. When you set a lamp on a table it provides light for the entire room. Don’t hide who you are! That little 20-watt light bulb that is you… let it shine! You can light up a room!
As Jesus teaches this beside the Sea of Galilee, perhaps he directs the audience’s attention toward the northwest where the city of Safed is located. It sits on top of a high hill and functions as a signaling station. From its prominent location it sights the new moon well before those at lower elevations can see it. But they can all see the city of Safed. Once the people of Safed see the new moon, they light a large fire visible to everyone living in the region. This light alerts people to prepare for the ritual requirements of this time of the month. Safed literally is a city that cannot be hid. Let your life be like Safed, Jesus says. Live your life in a way everyone can see who you are and the good you do and know this is what God intends for every person to be like.
While both salt and light are abundant today, it is getting more and more challenging to be salty and bright. Over the centuries our country has faced many great challenges, some external, some internal. We have fought great wars against great evil and we have fought one horrific war against ourselves. We stared down the soulless state that is the Soviet Union while confronting the hypocrisy of McCarthyism in our own society. We expressed our worst in Jim Crow and aspired to our best through the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe there were darker times than our time right now, I can’t say.
What I can say is February 9, 2020 feels like the darkest and most dire time in our country during my lifetime. In these days foolishness abounds and is often praised. Policies once inconceivable are enacted with cavalier nonchalance. Words and gestures I never thought I would see from American leaders, sadly, is the new norm. How bad is it? When the Speaker of the House of Representatives is so fed up she rips apart her copy of the President’s State of the Union speech, well that says to me we are close to tearing ourselves apart. I want to be optimistic, I try to be hopeful, but whoever first coined the proverb about the silver lining must never have been through a storm like we had last Thursday or lived in a political environment such as ours.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, I aspire for our civic life to reflect justice, exhibit mercy, and be marked by civility. This, according to Micah 6:8, is the baseline for what God’s dream of a “Christian” society looks like. Disturbingly, our nation is turning more and more from this dream and pursuing a nightmare. Please do not think I am pointing a finger at one person or political party. We are in this together and if we move forward or if we move backward, we all share in some aspect of the praise or the blame.
If Jesus stood in our midst this morning, this is the sad context in which he would say to us, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” In a world as dark as ours, we must live our lives radiant with Christ’s love. God’s light, lived out by God’s faithful people, is the only way to vanquish the darkness of our time. As salt, this is no time to be dull because we are worn down and worn out. Now is the time for Jesus’ followers to be sharp and on point. The stakes are too serious for us to be foolish. We must live with intention – the intention of allowing God to use us in a way similar to how salt prevents decay.
Ultimately we hope all people will find salvation by living rightly in this world and being worthy of it in the next. It humbles me, but sharpens me, to think how I live my life might just point the way for others to live. It gladdens me to think my single light can banish a significant amount of darkness. And then I think about our collective life, what we have here at St. Paul’s as each of us lives as salt and light. We are a precious, Godly presence in our community, a Safed-like place upon which all can look and join in order to get a sense of God’s dream for this world.